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Stopping settlement building is not the end of the story

February 28, 2014 at 12:23 am

Israel has recently approved the building of 900 additional housing units in the settlement of Gilo, in the southern part of Jerusalem, near the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. This is meant to cut Jerusalem off completely from the West Bank.

At the same time, TV screens were showing Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian houses in the village of Isawyiah, just east of Jerusalem, and devastated women and children weeping by the debris and appealing for help. Simple furniture and other belongings were scattered as usual because of this continuous practice. And as usual, too, there have been loud cries of protests and condemnation, from Arab, Palestinian and other sources, including from the White House. The ritual objections, to which Israel must be well accustomed, as they follow every similar Israeli action and then quietly fade while Israel continues to quietly build, said that the Israeli measure would rule out any possibility of restarting stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The irony here is the implication that peace talks would have been possible had the Israelis decided not to approve the current settlement expansion project, or had they not, that day, razed to the ground inhabited Palestinian houses in that village east of Jerusalem

How many times can the peace process be deadlocked or declared dead?

It was thought dead at the conclusion of the Bush presidency, which fulfilled neither the Annapolis nor the president’s promise of the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of his term, earlier this year. But before that, back in 2004, when Ariel Sharon announced his intention to unilaterally disengage from Gaza, his chief adviser at the time Dov Weisglass said in an interview with Haaretz Magazine (October 8, 2004) that the disengagement was meant to put the peace process to rest, and with that, end any prospect of creating a Palestinian state.

Weisglass declared at the time that the Israeli intention was to put the peace process in formaldehyde: “[w]hat I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns. That is the significance of what we did. The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential [Bush] blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress. What more could have been anticipated? What more could have been given to the settlers?”

No one wanted to believe Weisglass, although he was right then, and proven even more so with the passing of time. The peace process, despite make believe talks, has been for long tightly preserved in formaldehyde.

Another blow was dealt to the peace process with the election of an ultra right-wing government in Israel a few months ago. This has once again dashed any remaining hopes.

The anti peace settlement pronouncements of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister – on settlements, Jerusalem, the refugees and their rights, the economic peace, the veto on a Palestinian state, the precondition that Israel be recognised as a state for the Jews, as well as other obstructive declarations -have made resuscitation of the peace process impossible.

And only recently we witnessed the failure of the much-acclaimed Mitchell Middle Eastern mission, which marked the end of the Obama promise to resume negotiations. Israel’s rejection of Washington’s demand to stop, or to stop temporarily, or to suspend, or to freeze or just to declare without really stopping, settlement building, to pave the way for talks to resume, further confirmed that all prospects of restarting negotiations faded. That, too, marked the end of the widely applauded Obama resolve.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision not to run for the next “unscheduled” presidential elections is actually meant to be the normal result of the end of any possibility for returning to the negotiations any time soon.

That tells us that the peace process is in reality dead (without counting the earlier declarations of death by Arab League’s Secretary General Amr Musa, a few years earlier).

How could settlement building by the Netanyahu government now end, again, what ended many times before? How could another stab in a dead body cause more death?

The reality that has been totally eclipsed by such polemics is that the chances for reaching a peace settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict would not have been achieved by an Israeli decision to freeze settlement building even if that was authentic and permanent. Such an Israeli commitment may have paved the way for renewed negotiations, but that would only allow entry of both negotiating parties into the ring to rotate endlessly again without direction, without defined terms of reference and without agreed-upon goal.

Stopping settlement construction now would not send the peace process running. It would still leave behind half a million settlers in hundreds of illegally built settlements covering just less than half of the best parts of the West Bank, including Jerusalem.

All the emphasis so far has been on freezing additional building. What was built since 1967 is barely mentioned in the peace process lexicon. Swap of territory is the euphemistic prescription. Without removing all the settlements, as happened in Sinai years ago, peace will not be attainable.

Just imagine this: if all the pressure the US could exert, with backing from the United Nations, the EU, the Quartet, the Arab and Muslim states, and actually everyone else, failed to convince Israel to freeze settlement building, only temporarily, what amount of international pressure would be needed to solve all the other complex and difficult issues: Jerusalem, refugees, existing settlements and the state? And where would that international pressure come from, if America and its president retreated hurriedly at the first Israeli hurdle?

Renewed negotiations would make many concerned parties feel good, but that is all. With near failure on many fronts, despite the high expectations and euphoria accompanying Obama’s presidency inauguration, the administration, already ten months in office, is desperate for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The only possible achievement is to bring the two parties to the negotiations table again. It does not really matter what the menu is going to be; what matters is to enable Washington to claim some success, and to buy time. Negotiations have dragged on fruitlessly for years before. Why should this round be any different?

Netanyahu, on his part, needs to engage in negotiations too, now that he secured all he needed and is confidently out of danger. What is still missing is the charade. Resumed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, with likely Arab backing under the present conditions, would bestow legitimacy on all Israeli violations, including in Jerusalem and the continuing settlement building. That explains Netanyahu’s expressed desire to negotiate instantly.

While Netanyahu has been repeatedly declaring his readiness to start negotiations without delay, he left no doubt, on the other hand, that he supports neither the “two-state” solution nor a final conflict settlement. (Not that the two-state option is a big deal).

Lastly, there is Abbas, who thrives on negotiations and has been left with no other function. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad seems to be firmly in charge of the systematic implementation of the Dayton plan for the West Bank, which also seems to be advancing “successfully”; moving in tandem, deliberately or coincidentally, with Netanyahu’s “economic peace”.

Abbas has only been accumulating failures. All his cards have been rendered worthless. His reliance on Americans, Europeans, Israelis, the Arab League, Islamic states, the Russians and all the others has earned him nothing. Neither his threats nor his decisions have been taken seriously. He has been constantly stumbling and faltering. His last threat not to run again for presidential elections is equally hollow. His buddies have postponed the elections anyway, obviously with his approval, and probably indefinitely.

There have been calls for him to stay on, but not because he is indispensable, rather because he is convenient. He will not depart the scene. He did already indicate that constitutional vacuum shall be avoided by resorting to other measures. That has been explained as his reaffirming the PLO and his presidency of it as the new legitimacy once the term of the current elected legislative council is over.

The peculiar phenomenon is that we never want to see all the aspects of the conflict as a whole. We prefer instead to see one thin slice at a time. That has led us nowhere. We need to see things in perspective.

The conflict will not disappear if Israel faithfully stops building settlements. That would only be one element, among many, that needs to be addressed. We need to stop passing hasty and shallow judgements, often in self deception rather than the result of sheer ignorance.

Jordan Times
Hasan Abu Nimah